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Education In America Authors: Darrah Deal, Student Lance, David Miller, David Miller, Chris Pentago


Reading Skill and Comprehension Must Be Assessed Separately

Watch for routine answers from students to hide a lack of understanding

Dear Dr. Fournier:

I am in my second year of teaching and am employed at a local middle school.  We have several students who are immigrants and are learning English as a second language.  I teach 7th grade history and have not had much training with ESL.  One of my students this year seems to speak English very well, but her grades are very low and she seldom answers any questions in class.  We have an ESL teacher who comes to the school each morning, but leaves for other schools in the afternoon.  Our schedules don't match where I can speak with her.  Do you have any suggestions for how I can help this student learn the content in my classroom?

Tina W.

Tuscon, AZ

Dear Tina:


One year I was on vacation when I was suddenly asked to help an ESL student with reading. She had a social studies assignment she needed to read, comprehend, learn and master to the point that she would be ready for a test the next day. I asked her to read to me. She did well. She was able to decode each word. However, there was no melody in her reading that gave the impression that she knew to what extent each word and/or phrase was important. This is called prosody, a skill that is often overlooked in children (all children, not just ESL) having difficulty with comprehension, but not with reading. Prosody is the patterns of stress and intonation in a language. You can only develop your own personal prosody –no two are alike– if you know the meaning of what you are saying or reading. It is what is required to avoid being considered monotone when speaking. This skill is needed when reading both orally and silently. A lack of prosody is an immediate red flag that the child is reading words/phrases but is clueless as to the meaning of the sentence or phrase.

With this red flag flailing wildly, I waited for her to finish reading and asked her to listen to me as I read with prosody. My goal was to determine if she understood prosody but perhaps was not using it herself. Asked if she understood what I had read, she smiled and said she did. She was proud of herself. The reading was about the Bill of Rights. I asked her to tell me what she understood, and I began to ask her questions.

What is a Bill? Answer: What you ask for in a restaurant to be able to pay.

Prohibiting? Can’t do; prohibiting the free exercise? We do not have recess any more. Abridging? What we drive over to get to other side of land.

Grievances? What happens when someone dies (referring to the grieving process).


To teach an ESL student, the first thing a teacher must do is to accept that the child will not be able to learn if you are speaking an unknown language. All students, including monolingual students need to learn three levels of the English language to do well in school. Informal language is the one that many students are still using when they start in pre-school. They speak in words, short phrases and then sentences. When they begin to read their books, these have short sentences, many times one sentence to a page. These sentences teach them vocabulary by use of pictures or by being shown how to act out what they mean. They also learn infrastructure of language as well as the proper verbs and their tenses without having a lesson on verb conjugation. By retelling the story they learn to use vocabulary correctly, state their thoughts in sentences and how to avoid run-on telling (sentences.) They are taught the concept of punctuation orally. Later on they will maintain informal language in informal setting and will add the idioms typical of everyday speech. Step on it! Has a cat got your tongue?

As children of this native language interact with native speakers more and more informal language is added. If you are not a native speaker the idioms will not be integrated and much of the daily language they listen to is not going to be understood right away.

Formal language is expected early in school. Now full sentences are expected and correct word usage is a must. The only way to understand a textbook is to be able to follow the formal language structure. Yet before that, teachers must make sure that all the children understand vocabulary and idioms or phrases. “The amendment was signed into law.” Just as the word amendment is not a commonly used word in children’s lives, neither is the phrase “signed into law.” Unfortunately, many teachers are under the pressure to cover content. To cover the content they do not have the time to stop and “teach” children the meaning of the words and the phrases they are to know for a test.

The third language is academic language. This is when the textbooks or content resources are written with the assumption that children not only have the vocabulary used, they also are able to understand phrases and concepts explained in longer, much more complicated ways.

Although this question refers specifically to ESL students I do invite teachers to quiz their entire class of students on the vocabulary, phrases and idioms that their texts depend on for students to learn. If a child does not know these in class, I assure you that assigning these for homework without giving them attention in class is not going to work for monolingual or bilingual students.

In my own practice I can’t even count the number of times that I must instruct my teachers to teach a child using the strategies that would normally be applied to bilingual students. In the age of video mania, many of children are not developing the informal, formal and academic skills required to be successful in life.


Have a question about education, education-related issues or your child’s schoolwork or homework? Ask Dr. Fournier and look for her answer in this column. E-mail your question or comment to Dr. Yvonne Fournier at [email protected].


More Stories By Dr. Yvonne Fournier

Dr. Yvonne Fournier is Founder and President of Fournier Learning Strategies. Her column, "Hassle-Free Homework" was published by the Scripps Howard News Service for 20 years. She has been a pharmacist, public health administrator, demographer and entrepreneur. Dr. Fournier, arguably one of the most prolific of educators and child advocates in America today, has followed her own roadmap, calling not just for change or improvement in education but for an entirely new model.

She remains one of the most controversial opponents of the current education system in America.